Man versus machine, for three points

Face-off between San Francisco 49ers field goal kicker Joe Nedney and a ferocious combat robot shows how even the most derided NFL position requires a human being.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
6 min read
San Francisco 49ers kicker Joe Nedney and a Ziggy, a RoboGames robot, attempt to kick field goals simultaneously in a man-versus-machine competition Monday in San Francisco. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

SAN FRANCISCO--Apparently, robot field goal kickers are pretty pathetic when it comes to talking trash.

That much was clear Monday morning during a placekicking face-off between San Francisco 49ers kicker Joe Nedney and Ziggy, a 340-pound combat robot. The two bitter rivals took the field at Kezar Stadium here, the original home of the 49ers, for nothing less than the victory stand in the never-ending battle between man and machine.

Ziggy arrived at Kezar first, and had already gotten in some good practice kicks when Nedney, decked out in his No. 6 Niners jersey, strode purposefully onto the perfectly manicured grass. And within minutes, the NFL kicker was already bringing it.

"It's pretty windy out here, Ziggy," Nedney taunted the robot as he booted a few practice balls through the yellow uprights about 35 yards away. "I'm expecting [Ziggy's ball] to fly over the top of the arch [far beyond the uprights] by the way you've been hyping it."

Through it all, Ziggy said nothing, seeming to prefer to let its kicking do the speaking. And that's generally the robot's style.

Robot takes on pro football kicker (photos)

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"You know, the robot is the strong, silent type," said Simone Davalos, one of the organizers of the RoboGames, the world's-largest robot competition, which takes place in San Mateo, Calif., this weekend. Nedney and Ziggy were on-hand here to do a little promotion for RoboGames.

'Oh, it's on'
For Monday's competition, Nedney had agreed to the proposal to kick against Ziggy from CM Robotics, an Ottowa, Canada-based team of engineers. About five years ago, the team built Ziggy, not with beating pro-kickers in mind, but actually with the idea of launching 340-pound peers in the air in battle-to-the-death robot wars.

But after years of ruling the RoboGames roost, it was time for Ziggy to take on some new competition. And that's when CM Robotics came up with the idea for today's event. And for Nedney, it was an offer he couldn't refuse.

"I got challenged," Nedney said. "I can't pass up a challenge."

The format for the day's gridiron festivities was simple. Each kicker, man and robot, would get a chance to kick from 35 yards. With each successful kick, they'd move back five yards. The first to miss twice would be the loser.

Despite boasts from CM Robotics member Mike Phillips that Ziggy had been clearing some imaginary goalposts at about 60 yards the day before, Nedney seemed not to be nervous. Indeed, stepping to the side of the scrum of reporters and robot experts and others on hand here, he quickly boomed a few field goals. You could see why this guy is the second-most accurate kicker in the NFL over the last four years.

Asked if he was nervous, Nedney admitted that he'd had a few butterflies in his belly on his way to Kezar, but said that ultimately, he wasn't. "No, because right now, robots aren't legal in the NFL," Nedney joked. "So my job with the 49ers is secure."

It was getting close to time to begin the competition. But first, Phillips and some of his team members had to do a few quick fixes to Ziggy to get it battle-ready. Nedney took that as an opportunity to talk a little trash. "The good thing is, I can kind of adjust on the fly," Nedney said. "They need the whole crew to come in" and fix Ziggy.

Nedney helps the CM Robotics team place the ball so that Ziggy can kick the ball more efficiently. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

But Nedney was also feeling charitable, and when he noticed that the way Ziggy was kicking was giving the ball a forward spin--something he said wasn't good for kicking into a headwind--he suggested that Phillips do something to adjust to backspin.

Finally, practice time was over, and a coin was flipped to see who would kick first. Nedney called tails, and tails it was. "I'm going first," he taunted, "to put pressure on Ziggy."

Nedney lined up, stepped back, and let one fly. It was long, and high. And very good. "It looks like it's going to be a tough day for Ziggy."

But moments later, Ziggy kicked for the first time, and from 35 yards, the ball sailed through the uprights.

"Oh, it's on, baby," Nedney shouted.

Didn't clear by much
The original idea had been that after each round of kicks, man and machine would move back 10 yards. But now it seemed like perhaps going back in five-yard increments would be a better idea. "That didn't clear by much," Nedney said of Ziggy's first field goal. "I don't know if Ziggy's got another ten yards in him."

Nedney then stepped up and booted his second field goal. Again, it was long and good and straight. Which of course meant it was time for a little more trash talk. "I think I'm in Ziggy's head," Nedney teased. "How you doing there, big guy? [We've] got a little cross wind there."

Now it was Ziggy's turn, and after pressurizing the compressed nitrogen tanks and shouting "Fire in the hole," Phillips pushed the button that released Ziggy's thruster, launching the ball up in the air where it fluttered a little bit and came down unceremoniously, nowhere near the uprights. The noise Ziggy makes when it kicks--or throws combat robots--is frightening, and the machinery moves so fast that anyone nearby could be hurt.

"I've misfired before," Nedney deadpanned, "but not like that, and not where I've endangered someone's life."

Ziggy was allowed to take a mulligan and kick again. But the second try was no good either. And with a strong wind blowing on the field, Nedney again suggested changing the placement of the ball so Ziggy's kicks would get backspin. First, they tried putting the ball closer to the robot, and then they tried lifting Ziggy's rear-end, all in an attempt to get the right angle on the ball. But the kicks, instead of getting better, just started going higher and higher in the air, but nowhere closer to earning three points. One attempt looked very good, and the crowd got excited. But then it fell short and the crowd all screamed "Oooooooh" in unison.

Finally, after yet another new placement of the ball, Ziggy's fifth kick was high and long, and it was good. After a big cheer from the crowd, Nedney muttered, "I wish I got five chances to make a field goal."

Now it was Nedney's turn again, and he promptly missed three in a row himself. "If I'm on Ziggy's rules, I still have three more shots." His fourth was bad, and then on the fifth, he showed why he's a pro.

"I beat the robot," Nedney shouted.

By now, what was once a competition had devolved into little more than demonstration fun. But of course, that was the whole point of the exercise. Nedney's constant rejoinders were all said in fun, and in fact, he was constantly going over to the robotics guys to help them figure out what the best way for Ziggy to kick was.

At one point, Nedney suggested they kick at the same time, in order to have simultaneous, side-by-side comparisons of their efforts. The results? A predictable booming kick from the NFL player and a weak rainbow of a kick from the robot.

Nedney celebrated his victory over Ziggy, the robot. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

There were smiles all around.

For Phillips and the CM Robotics team, Monday's event was proof that conditions matter. Kicking into a heavy wind and having to deal with some mechanical issues on the fly meant tempered a little bit of the confidence they'd had after Ziggy had kicked 60-yarders off concrete the day before.

For Nedney, on the other hand, it was proof that his years of training and the expertise he'd developed at this high-level skill position actually meant something. "I'm bringing a little bit of legitimacy to my position," Nedney said. "Everybody says a robot can beat a human being [at kicking field goals]. Well, apparently not."